“QUIZ WIZ–YOU REMEMBER that?” asks Al Kahn. We are sitting in his memorabilia-dense office, which occupies an upper floor of an old art deco edifice on Ninth Avenue in New York City’s theater district. And I do, in fact, remember Quiz Wiz–a handheld electronic trivia game that, somehow, became a must-have toy sensation in the early 1980s. Basically a hunk of rectangular plastic, it had a numerical keypad, a tiny speaker that buzzed, and an attached booklet of trivia questions that you answered by pressing certain keys–the whole apparatus as primitive as a glass-screened cathode-ray TV. “I think I got one of those for Christmas one year!” I say to Kahn, the very rhyming name of the game activating in my mind Super 8-ish images of childhood, of chaotic Christmas Day unwrappings.
Spend any length of time with Kahn, and this sort of thing happens over and over. Sooner or later, you come to realize that this plump, profane, fast-talking 74-year-old from Brooklyn is the person responsible for bringing into existence, for better or for worse, countless toys, games, and gizmos that have embedded themselves–also for better or for worse–in your remembrance of things past.
For more than 40 years, Kahn has been one of the world’s great toy impresarios–founding and losing empires, making and losing fortunes. You surely do not know his name, but you likely owe part of your childhood happiness to him.
He doesn’t, mind you, invent these amusements, or even really make them. What he does is unearth obscure toy ideas, license them from their inventors, and then scale the things up into mass-produced global phenomena, making everyone rich in the process, most notably himself. In this way, he’s like an old-school A&R man discovering pop musicians and signing them to the label, or like the early 20th-century showbiz producers Lee and J.J. Shubert, who bought scripts and songs and churned out Broadway smashes from their headquarters at the Shubert Theatre Building, which, as it happens, stands just down the street from Kahn’s office.
In the days of Quiz Wiz, Kahn says, he traveled the world hunting for new ideas as head of product development for a toy conglomerate called Coleco. He had one of those all-inclusive Pan Am tickets of jet-age lore, where you could fly anywhere in the world in first class: Just show up at the airport, flash your ticket, and walk right onto the 747, destination London, Vienna, Hong Kong, Tokyo. Then you ascended the spiral staircase and started drinking scotch and sodas at the bar outside the cockpit.
Kahn made a habit of visiting the world’s best toy inventors at least twice a year. High on this list was Eddy Goldfarb, who, in Kahn’s words, “is a fucking legend.” From his workshop outside Los Angeles, Goldfarb invented countless iconic toys. Those plastic teeth that clatter? That’s a Goldfarb. The plastic gun that shoots soap bubbles? Goldfarb too. The game KerPlunk? Yes. Stomper trucks? You guessed it. “It was always fun to present items to Al, because he got so excited about them,” recalls Goldfarb, who turned 100 years old in September and is still inventing toys. On a visit to Goldfarb’s place in the late 1970s, Goldfarb told Kahn he’d recently gotten into electronic games. Then he presented Kahn with a prototype Quiz Wiz, “which was, I thought,” Kahn says, “just fucking brilliant.” Kahn immediately did a deal to license the game for Coleco. It sold millions of units. “It was a huge hit.”
But that’s hardly the end of the story; when Kahn tells toy stories, one tucks into the next, like Russian nesting dolls.
Goldfarb, you see, once had a partner named Marvin Glass. Glass died in 1974, but the toy-invention studio that he and Goldfarb had co-founded remained in business for many years, based in a fortress-like structure in downtown Chicago. This was no homey rustic Santa’s workshop. It had no windows. It had an air of secrecy and high style. Inside, important works of abstract art hung from white walls. Somewhere out of sight were futuristic labs in which engineers and designers brainstormed ideas and built prototypes. It was like a Bell Labs, a Xerox PARC, but for toys. When buyers from big companies–Mattel, Hasbro, Kenner, Coleco–came to visit, they were ushered into sleek showrooms where new toys were demonstrated like weapons systems. In this swinging, Mad Men era, Marvin Glass & Associates had created a glamorous environment to awe buyers and close sales. “They were putting on a show,” Kahn says today, and it made a distinct impression on him. Toys were entertainment; to sell them you needed to put on a show. And Glass left no stops unpulled. The firm, for example, had a lunchroom famed both for its kitchen–where a brigade de cuisine prepared Michelin-level menus–and its waitstaff. This was the servers’ side job, actually, a Marvin Glass associate once told Kahn as they lunched. Their main job was down the street, at the club run by another swinging Chicago showman, Hugh Hefner. To serve lunch to the toy men, Marvin Glass hired Playboy Bunnies.
It was theatrical. It was a spectacle. And Kahn took note.
KAHN, 22 YEARS OLD, liked to walk the 400,000-square-foot retail floors of the B. Gertz & Co. department store, in Jamaica, Queens, where he worked 70-hour weeks for $7,500 a year as a buyer trainee. It was 1969. It was his first job out of college (Long Island University), his first job after finishing his compulsory military service, in the National Guard. He’d been hired at Christmastime, and spent that holiday with the grunts unloading trucks. Then he began his rotations through the dizzying array of Gertz departments, each run like its own independent business–women’s apparel, men’s apparel, appliances.
Stationed in appliances, he found a shipment of laundry machines that had arrived from a Japanese company he’d never heard of: Toshiba. Clever, miniature, portable, they were designed for use in small spaces–New York City apartments, say–and could be hooked up to the kitchen sink. There was only one problem. Instead of “washer,” the front of the machines said “rasher.” Kahn bought them all at a steep discount and put them on the Gertz floor, where they promptly sold out at a tidy profit–misfit-product arbitrage.
The rotation continued. Electronics, housewares, gourmet foods. Books, cameras, sporting goods. Then, one day, up on the fourth floor, he came to the department that Gertz called Toyland. Immediately, Kahn was struck. He gazed all around him at the displays. “I had an epiphany. I said, ‘This is where I have to be.’ Because what hit me was: Name one thing in the world that’s not in the toy department. Everything in the toy department is a representation of what comes out of the real world. Kids emulate adults. Everything adults are using, kids wanna have. So it had cars, planes, it had washing machines, dryers. I said: ‘This is crazy; this is fucking great.’ “
After the trainee period ended, it came time to choose a department, and Kahn, needless to say, chose toys. Soon enough, he had a second epiphany. As he ascended the ranks at Gertz’s parent company, he educated himself on “play patterns,” an industry term of art meant to convey the ways children engage with–play with–toys. The toys that children (or anyone) find the most compelling have strong, clear play patterns. Quiz Wiz, for example, was a personal, portable Trivial Pursuit. Stomper trucks could, satisfyingly, drive over anything. The toys that sold best had marketing plans that communicated those play patterns with strength and clarity.
At Gertz, toy companies would come to Kahn and make presentations. Sometimes, a toy’s packaging or its positioning line–the catch phrase that goes along with the product itself–would strike Kahn as off. Sometimes the toy had a weak play pattern. He would suggest improvements, and the toy execs would look at one another and raise their eyebrows and nod. In the business, Kahn began to acquire a reputation.
He had, it seemed, the touch.
ONE MORNING three decades later, Kahn was at his desk in Midtown Manhattan when he received a call from the office of the president of the Nintendo Company Limited, Kyoto, Japan. Kahn, by then in his early 50s, was the CEO of his own toy- licensing company. Hiroshi Yamauchi, the Nintendo president, leader of the company, was at the time the richest person in Japan, worth around $8 billion. He wanted to see Kahn, in person, in Kyoto, immediately if not sooner. The tone in the voice of the person calling on behalf of the president communicated to Kahn something between displeasure and infuriation. This was a little strange. At the time, Kahn and Nintendo were close business partners in the middle of the most lucrative licensing arrangement not only of Kahn’s career or Nintendo’s history–but in the history of mercantile licensing. The brand they’d built together was bigger than Star Wars, bigger than anything in the Disney galaxy. They were partners, of course, in Pokémon.
Kahn rose to his feet. Japanese custom, he knew, was for a visitor to present to his host a gift–a show of humility and respect. If your host was also one of Japan’s most powerful men, well, then what? Swiftly, he made his way to an antiques shop in New York that specialized in works of Japanese artisanship. He wandered its rooms, pondering the pieces and his sometimes contentious relationship with Nintendo.
No entity was more tied to the ups and downs of Kahn’s career than the video-game maker. Their history extended back to the early 1980s, when Kahn still worked at Coleco, before a dustup over Donkey Kong and a series of failed product launches led to what Kahn still views as his unjust and ignominious firing. But Kahn had clawed his way back. For the past 10 years, he’d fulfilled a long-held ambition: He was running his own shop.
He called it 4Kids Entertainment. Its core business, Kahn’s big idea when he started the company, was producing children’s TV shows that would “support toys, that were basically 22-minute commercials,” Kahn says. To that end, he’d signed a deal for the worldwide merchandising rights to Nintendo’s video-game characters, ex-Asia. His chutzpah and charisma charmed the Nintendo brass. “He was very ambitious, and quick-witted, and great fun to be around,” says Howard Lincoln, then chairman of Nintendo of America. Kahn was making frequent trips to the home country. On one trip, in September 1997, he noticed that wherever he walked in Tokyo, youngsters were gathering in small groups to play an inscrutable card game, the cards bearing the images of fantastical creatures. On the backs of the cards was the game’s name: Pocket Monsters. Kahn soon realized that a companion TV show was airing in Japan, done in the country’s distinctive anime style. And soon he discovered that Pocket Monsters was the property of a consortium of Japanese entities, including a certain Nintendo.
This game, this show, this universe of characters–he thought he could see an audience in America and possibly the world. But why? What about these weird, very Japanese monsters suggested to him their broad appeal? For one, the game had a clear, strong play pattern. As in a martial arts flick, the players advanced through levels on a journey to becoming a master. For another, the show was already vastly popular. “What caught my eye,” Kahn says, “was that everybody in Japan was watching it!” Khan is a big believer in the notion of proof of concept, and the idea that kids are kids, no matter where they’re from.
If it was big in Japan, Kahn figured, it could be big anywhere.
When he approached his contacts at Nintendo about taking Pocket Monsters to the Western world, however, they were not enthusiastic. In addition to cards, Pocket Monsters had been made into a game on Nintendo’s handheld Game Boy device. But it wasn’t your typical arcade-style release; it was a role-playing game, a word game. “And they said: ‘Kids in America don’t read. They will never get this,’ ” Kahn says. ” ‘It will never be something they will understand.’ ” Nintendo worried that bringing Pocket Monsters to America would result in a business “disaster–and they didn’t want to be involved in a disaster.” But Kahn persisted. He always persists. “I kept hammering at it,” he says. He offered a face-saving measure to the Japanese execs; if this thing failed in the U.S., he said, blame Kahn. Also, he notes, “Everything ultimately comes down to money.” He offered the Pocket Monster consortium what was, to Kahn at the time, “a shitload of money.”
For the worldwide rights to Pokémon outside Asia, Kahn paid $2.5 million.
Back in the Japanese art gallery in Manhattan, Kahn’s eyes were finally caught by a sculpture. Cast in bronze, more than a century old, it depicted an action scene: two samurai warriors engaged in mortal combat. Yamauchi himself, Kahn knew, was a ruthless businessman, “a real samurai warrior, a killer,” he says. This thing seemed perfect. Maybe it had been taken during World War II; Kahn could return it to its rightful home.
“I’ll take it,” Kahn said. “How much?”
It is a testament to just how spectacularly lucrative Pokémon had become–4Kids was earning some $60 million in royalties per quarter and sending hundreds of millions of dollars back to Japan–that Kahn did not flinch at the answer: $100,000. “Can you wrap this up so I can carry it on the plane?” he asked. It weighed 40 pounds. Kahn lugged the sculpture onto his flight–he had trouble at Japanese customs; they suspected, at first, that it was a plundered national treasure–and then onto a bullet train bound for Kyoto. As the train zipped south, Kahn kept wondering: What does Yamauchi want?
ONE DAY, I GOT A CALL FROM MY CFO. HE SAID, ‘WE DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY. IT’S ALL GONE.’
After obtaining the Pocket Monster license, Kahn faced other challenges. For one, he told me, he had not liked the name. Why was it in English? Kahn knew that kids in Japan had been calling the game by a kind of syllabic abbreviation. Why not use that? He thought it sounded like a Japanese word. Just who is responsible for changing the brand’s name to Pokémon–a fateful act in its development, to be sure–is, to this day, contentious. Lincoln, president of Nintendo America at the time, told me he doesn’t recall. Akira Chiba, head of Pokémon USA for six years, says he doesn’t know. Whatever the case, by 1998, the brand was called Pokémon.
Kahn, meanwhile, set about “localizing” the original Japanese-made shows. He dubbed them into English and scrubbed all the smoking and drinking and (incredible but true) the topless female characters. He changed the names to American names. Ash Ketchum, for example, was Kahn’s team’s idea. Kahn says that he himself came up with the imperishable Pokémon positioning line: Gotta Catch ‘Em All. He also hired the composer who wrote the Pokémon music. “You can thank Al Kahn, in some part, for that earworm of a theme, as well,” as The Washington Post once put it. Kahn did a deal with the then-boutique Seattle game publisher Wizards of the Coast to produce the English-language Pokémon cards. He did a deal with Hasbro for toys. He struggled to persuade American TV networks to air this foreign concoction in which all the human characters had bizarre hair. Eventually, he succeeded in syndicating the show to hundreds of local stations, most of which put it on at 5 or 6 in the morning.
Days passed, weeks. Then word started coming back from local affiliate after local affiliate: Pokémon‘s ratings were outpacing anything else on air during the weekday. The bonanza had begun.
Now, Kahn’s train arrived at Kyoto Station. A Nintendo car brought him and his cargo to Nintendo HQ, where he was ushered into the president’s suite. Japanese conference rooms are unlike American ones. Typically, there is no long table. Instead, there are low chairs and low tea tables, and Kahn placed the ponderous bronze sculpture prominently on one of these. Finally, alongside an interpreter and a lawyer, Yamauchi entered the room. No hello, no small talk. He sat down in a chair across from Kahn, the hulking bronze samurai battling to the death between them, and yelled at Kahn over the samurai heads in a stream of pitched Japanese. He did not appear to notice the sculpture. It might as well have been a box of Kleenex. Then he got up and left. The interpreter stayed behind. What did Yamauchi say?
“You’re doing a great job, keep up the good work,” the interpreter said–Kahn had traveled 7,000 miles for a lost-in-translation pep talk.
Later that week, Kahn had meetings with a slew of lower-echelon Nintendo executives. He asked them, “Did the president happen to say anything about a, uh, sculpture?”
“Oh, yeah,” one of them replied. “He took it home.”
WHEN KAHN WAS 14 years old, his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Murray Kahn was first-generation. His father, Al’s grandfather, had immigrated to America from Germany in the late 19th century, settling on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in that historic Jewish immigrant enclave of overcrowded tenements, laundry strung across alleyways, and street merchants hollering from behind horse-drawn carts. Murray eventually entered the family business: garments. There was at one point a Kahn Clothes Company, but by the time Al came along, in January 1947, it had gone under, sunk by an incompetent uncle. Murray, fresh out of the Army and World War II, worked as a buyer for a men’s suit maker called Rose Brothers, on Broadway. Among its customers were several of New York’s professional sports clubs. Al remembers his father bringing him and his brother into work on the days that the Yankees or the Giants came to be fitted for their bespoke suits.
Al himself was a talented football player. Big, strong, fast for his size, he played fullback and defensive line for his high school in Massapequa, a suburb on Long Island so filled with Jews and Italians who, like the Kahns, had moved out from the city, that it was known as Motzapizza. Murray was similarly football-player size, a big-eating, cigar-smoking mensch, but when the cancer came it wasted him away. Within a year of the diagnosis, he was dead. He left behind debts; Al’s mother struggled financially; Al went to work to help support the family, eventually paying his way through college at LIU.
But before all that, Murray was in and out of hospitals. Al and his mother and his siblings tried to care for him at home. There were horrific nights when the pain grew excruciating. Twice his father asked Al to find a gun and shoot him. Finally, one night in late December 1962, not long before Christmas, his father had a bad fall. Though the Kahns were observant, reform Jews, Christmastime was still a festive family holiday in the Kahn household. But not this year, or for a long time after. Al heard the noise and ran to the bedroom and saw Murray’s form sprawled on the floor. Al moved to pick him up, and when he did he was shocked. His father was light as a child. The illness was taking him. They called an ambulance. As the medics loaded him onto the gurney, Al clutched his father’s hand and said goodbye. “I knew I was never going to seem him again,” he says.
His father died on Christmas Day.
POKÉMON BROUGHT KAHN regularly to Japan in the 1990s and 2000s. Six-foot-one, more than 200 pounds, Kahn, with his American girth, hulked through Tokyo. Whenever his Japanese hosts took him out to dinner, they instructed the waiters to bring him double orders. Once, they took him to a chanko nabe restaurant–a place that serves a type of stew prepared specifically to fatten sumo wrestlers. Was this hospitality or subtle mockery? “The bottom-line story is, I had some good relationships with these guys,” Kahn says. “But the Japanese are extraordinarily, what’s the word? … Protective. … It’s an island. We were gaijin. Still are gaijin.”
In 2000, Kahn in Japan thought he’d found the next big thing after Pokémon. It was another card game with a fantastical storyline–a meta-game, a game about games–called Yu-Gi-Oh! Again, what caught Kahn’s eye about it wasn’t some profound insight into Japanese culture, but simply Yu-Gi-Oh!’s already huge popularity in Japan, not just as cards but as a whole universe of branded stuff: animated TV shows, films, clothes, toys.
“I needed Yu-Gi-Oh!” says Kahn today. Just why he needed it, however, is at the center of a complicated series of events that even now Kahn is cagey about narrating in detail. He feels that to do so would risk pissing off the Japanese who run Pokémon, with whom he hopes to do business still. Suffice it to say that by 2005, the Pokémon consortium had terminated 4Kids’ license, which meant Kahn really did need his next big thing. Yu-Gi-Oh! was it. Helped along by what Kahn learned in bringing Pokémon to U.S. audiences, Yu-Gi-Oh! had by 2011 sold 25.1 billion trading cards.
Even Kahn’s most astounding successes appear to contain within them the seeds of an eventual reversal. Yu-Gi-Oh! is no different. The 4Kids business model–low overhead, massive royalties from Pokémon and then Yu-Gi-Oh!–generated tremendous sums of cash. At some point, the 4Kids board determined that just letting that cash sit in a bank account wasn’t producing enough yield. The search for yield led to auction-rate securities. This was in 2006, 2007. The auction rate securities were held by Lehman Brothers. You can surely see what’s coming next.
“One day, I got a call from my CFO,” Kahn remembers. “He said, ‘We don’t have any money. It’s all gone.’ ” The FBI became involved, and the bankruptcy courts, and many, many lawyers. At about the same time, Kahn was divorcing his wife of 25 years, the mother of his four children. Then came the tragedy of his life, the suicide of his son. Kahn stepped away from 4Kids, from toys, from pretty much everything. He’d lost his company, his marriage, his child. “I just couldn’t deal with it,” he says.
It was 2011, and Kahn prepared to settle into retirement and ride that out till the end came.
IN 1998, KAHN HAD BEEN searching for a partner to distribute Pokémon wares in Australia and New Zealand, the only region on earth Kahn had yet to infiltrate with the Pokémon brand. The path had led him to David Yu, a Taiwanese resident of New Zealand with a passion for games and comic books and the collectibles generated by them. He’d already established several stores, and was looking to expand across his home country and Australia. Kahn never met Yu in person; they emailed and spoke by phone. To Kahn, though, Yu seemed preternaturally smart and ambitious. So he signed Yu up as the Pokémon distributor Down Under. And, says Kahn, “he made a fucking fortune.” Only later did Kahn learn his age. When Yu had done the deal with Kahn, he had just turned 19.
Fast-forward two decades, to January 2018. This time face-to-face, the pair met up in Hong Kong, at the Hong Kong toy show, at Yu’s request. Now almost 40 years old and the head of a sprawling business empire that included retail, real estate, and cryptocurrency ventures, Yu had a proposition for Kahn. “I owe you,” Yu said. Kahn had helped make him. Kahn had been a mentor, someone he wanted to emulate. “The amount of energy he has, it’s quite inspiring,” Yu says. “And he’s just so full of great ideas. … I don’t even know the things that go through his head.” Unbeknownst to Yu, in the years since Kahn’s retirement, Kahn had grown antsy. He wanted back in the game. Now, Yu was asking him, would Kahn be interested in joining him in a new business venture? Like most of the world at that point, Kahn had never heard of a non-fungible token. (“A what?” Kahn said when Yu first uttered the term.) But Kahn listened. The business would produce digital collectibles, based on the blockchain (in this case, Ethereum’s). In exchange for equity in Yu’s NFT business, which he called VeVe, all Kahn had to do was one thing: “Get me licenses,” Yu said.
So it was that Kahn got himself back in the game.
For the past four years, Kahn has indeed been getting licenses for Yu (James Bond, Star Trek, Universal Pictures, Marvel, Disney, and more), earning his sweat equity in VeVe. Says Yu, “Al opened every single door that we needed in America.” But VeVe isn’t Kahn’s only venture. Eight years ago, Kahn remarried. And with his wife, Jillian Crane, a statuesque actor and screenwriter 20 years his junior, he started a new licensing company. He started a new toy company (called Kidtagious). He bought rights to a Chinese animated series that he had renamed, rewritten, and reproduced in preparation for releasing it worldwide. Centering on a group of adolescent swine proficient in the martial arts, it’s called Kung Fu Pork Choppers. And he’s invested in and become a partner of a tech company, Vitaprint, founded by a pair of toy inventors he first met 30 years ago. Kahn’s workday now extends from 10 a.m. until deep into the night, communicating with partners on the other side of the world. Combined with his charity work–most notably, he set up the First Responders Children’s Foundation after 9/11–Kahn, at 74, may never have been busier.
“I decided, I’m not going out this way; this is not the way I’m going out,” he says of his inability to stay retired after the collapse of 4Kids. “I felt that because of some of the things that happened–it made me feel like I was a loser.” Now, he notes, he’s juggling more than 30 projects inside his four main “verticals.” “I own equity in all these companies, and I’m pretty convinced I’m gonna do OK. So I won’t go out a loser.”
Some moments pass, he starts talking about something else, and then he comes back to it. “Nobody thinks I’m a loser,” he says. The conversation again goes in another direction. Then, boomerang.
“Bottom line is, I don’t wanna say I was going out a ‘loser.’ What I wanna say is I wanna go out on top,” Kahn says. “I wanna be on top again, OK? That’s fair, right?”
CABBAGE PATCH KIDS
TO UNEARTH NEW TOY ideas, Kahn has always combed newspapers from around the country. Every so often, they yield jewels. That’s how he recently found a woman named Lee Cross, an artisan who was selling handmade soft-sculpture plush animals on eBay. Kahn recently signed her to Kidtagious, which will mass-produce her creations.
That’s also how, in 1982, while head of development at Coleco, Kahn read about something called Babyland General Hospital, in Cleveland, Georgia. An artist named Xavier Roberts had transformed an old medical clinic into a make-believe maternity ward, and from it he was selling handmade soft-sculpture dolls–he called them “Little People.” Soon enough, Kahn was taking a tour of Babyland, where the “children” were “born” from cabbages. “I thought it was the craziest but most wonderful thing I’d seen in a long time,” he says.
After cutting a deal with Roberts to mass-produce the dolls at Coleco, the hard work began. Whenever Kahn has a new product in development, he likes to use focus groups, but only for what he calls a disaster check. “I don’t care if they say they love it. I want to know if they hate it,” he says. The groups he called in to have a look at Roberts’s dolls didn’t hate them. They also indicated that the thing they liked most about them was that each was one-of-a-kind. Kahn and Roberts knew that this had to be the hook. But how do you manufacture one-of-a-kind dolls at scale? Coleco’s engineers had ideas: basically, mixing up the permutations of eye color, hair color, skin color.
I DECIDED, I’M NOT GOING OUT THIS WAY. I WANNA GO OUT ON TOP. I WANNA BE ON TOP AGAIN.
Next came the marketing plan. In this pre-digital era, Kahn’s goal was to achieve virality. He wanted word of Cabbage Patch to catch and spread, but he needed a trigger. He needed to put on a show. So he and his admen came up with a stunt. They called up schools in different cities nationwide, and asked if their students would like to get some free dolls. Then, in prominent city parks and museums–in Manhattan’s Central Park, in Boston and Milwaukee–he had the children convene for a mass adoption of Cabbage Patch Kids–“we never called them dolls,” Kahn says. Before each child could receive their one-of-a-kind creation, they had to swear an oath: “I promise to be a good parent, to love and to yada yada,” Kahn remembers. “Well, that got picked up! By a lot of newspapers! They were like, What is this shit? This is crazy! It’s like a Sun Myung Moon wedding!”
When Kahn first presented Cabbage Patch Kids to Toys “R” Us, one of the then-giant retailer’s executives, a legendary toy man named Sy Ziv, didn’t like them. “He said, ‘You mean to tell me you want people to come to our store and run around and just dig through every doll on the shelf and pick the one they like?’ ” Kahn says. “I go: ‘Yeah.’ Then he says: ‘How will we know which one is selling the best? If the blond, blue-eyed doll is the bestseller, how do we reorder it?’ I said, ‘You can’t.’ ” Over Ziv’s objections, Toys “R” Us carried Cabbage Patch Kids. And when they did go viral, when Cabbage Patch mania swept the country to such a degree that the entire first and second and third runs sold out, and people were fighting one another in the aisles or flying to England to find them, and Coleco earned $600 million in one year from them, and Kahn appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, and Xavier Roberts became so rich that he began collecting works by Picasso–even then Sy Ziv didn’t change his mind. Kahn says, “Sy took it personally, this whole Cabbage Patch thing. The more successful it got, the nastier he got. One time, he came to the Coleco showroom at Toy Fair, and he was in a wheelchair–because he had hurt his leg or something–and he took his cane and knocked over the Cabbage Patch display.”
Perhaps in response to all the Cabbage Patch naysayers–his bosses at Coleco were also initially skeptical–Kahn himself took the marketing of Cabbage Patch to a personal level. He had his own Cabbage Patch Kid, for instance–a kind of mini Al–and he brought it with him wherever he went. At restaurants, he put the thing into a high chair and ordered it dinner. On planes, he bought it a ticket and buckled it up in the seat beside him. Like a man engaged in a form of extreme, toy-biz Method acting, he refused to acknowledge that mini Al wasn’t real.
“And then one time, I did something horrible,” Kahn confesses. Immersed in his role, unable to resist making a spectacle, he wrapped his baby in a swaddling blanket before a flight one day, so that mini Al appeared to be an actual infant. Then he carried it onto the plane and asked one of the flight attendants, “Would you like to hold my baby?”
Yes, of course, she replied, getting ready to coo and cuddle. And as he moved to hand the baby to the unsuspecting woman, Kahn, ever the showman, executed the gag: “I dropped it.”
From the November 2021 issue of Inc. Magazine